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Refineries cast long shadow over California towns

January 27, 1997

MARTINEZ, Calif. (AP) _ Choking clouds of toxic gas. Explosions. Oil spills. Chemical leaks.

People living in the shadow of one of the nation’s biggest concentrations of oil refineries and chemical plants have seen it all. But what really worries them is what they have not seen.

``There’s always a concern,″ Michelle Ozen said. ``We always find ourselves looking in the direction of the facilities, sniffing every time you go outside and wondering if the clouds you see rising from the equipment are steam or something else.″

Ozen lives 20 miles north of San Francisco in Contra Costa County, home to 29 oil and chemical plants that handle 45 million pounds of hazardous products and waste. Chevron Corp., Shell Oil Co., Dow Chemical Co. and DuPont Inc. all have plants in the area.

The number of plants involved poses a real threat of a chemical cloud release that could travel for miles, putting 11 cities, as many small towns and a half-million people at risk.

Since 1989, residents have endured at least 22 significant mishaps. The most recent occurred on Tuesday, when a gasoline processing unit at the Tosco Refining Co. in Martinez blew up, killing worker Michael Glanzman and injuring 25 others.

In 1993, a toxic cloud of sulfuric acid left 20,000 people suffering respiratory problems. And in 1994, Unocal’s refinery in Rodeo released the toxic chemical Catacarb into the air for 16 days without the company notifying authorities. Since then, more than 1,500 people have complained of illnesses ranging from dizziness and memory loss to miscarriages and brain damage.

The frequency of accidents makes Contra Costa the sixth worst county in the nation for chemical accidents that involve injury, evacuations or death, according to the National Environmental Law Center in Boston.

``The fact of the matter is these are unsafe facilities,″ said former county supervisor Jeff Smith. ``I think we’re on a collision course to a major disaster. What happened Tuesday was just the tip of the iceberg.″

Oil and chemical companies disagree, saying the sheer number of facilities involved explain the number of mishaps.

``Obviously, the bottom line has to be an incident-free operation,″ Chevron spokesman Hal Holt said. ``Any kind of an incident takes the particular plant out of use. And a plant that is damaged is no longer productive.″

But residents have complained for years of skin rashes, breathing problems, nausea and miscarriages. After a toxic cloud of sulfuric acid left 20,000 people with breathing problems in 1993, they pressured county officials to put together a radio, computer, telephone and siren warning system to notify people of chemical releases.

Residents still find prevention measures inadequate, however. They refer to the county’s ``Shelter-In-Place″ program, which urges people to stay in their homes during a toxic release, as the ``Get Gassed in Your Home″ plan.

Randy Sawyer, a county risk management specialist, and others have questioned the planning that placed so many plants near homes and schools.

In fact, the plants were there first. Unocal built the first one in 1896, and several communities grew around them during the World War II building boom.

``It’s not as easy to get permits now,″ Sawyer said. ``We have more scrutiny now. We look at it more closely than we did in the past.″

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